Philip Game sets forth on a tortuous road into India’s remote north east, from the banks of the Brahmaputra up into the Himalayan foothills and the very edge of Tibet.
My opportunity to venture into north eastern India, once largely off limits, came at short notice. An invitation to explore Meghalaya, Manipur or Mizoram, Nagaland or Tripura; or even Arunachal Pradesh, said to be India’s wildest and least explored state? Yes, who could resist? But which way?
India’s Seven Sisters, the seven states of the north east, group themselves around the enclave that is independent Bangladesh. Assam, the most populous and the most prosperous state, cradles the sprawling floodplains of the Brahmaputra, with some tracts of verdant hill country that include the great tea plantations. The other six states rub their mountainous spines against the borders of Bhutan, Chinese-occupied Tibet and Myanmar (Burma).
This is not the India of great cities, of regal hotels and sumptuous shopping. Think vibrant tribal cultures and abundant wildlife, including those elusive big cats: tiger and leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. Smaller cats, simian species and other mammals roam these highlands and forests. Endemic bird species number in the hundreds. After Assam, Nagaland, which shares a border with Myanmar, is perhaps the best-known of the Seven, thanks to its annual Hornbill Festival. The others are simply names to conjure with.
Arunachal Pradesh is one such. The ‘Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains’ rises abruptly beyond the Brahmaputra as a mass of hills clothed with subtropical forests. These hills eventually top off as snow-capped Himalayan peaks . Twenty-six major tribes share the former North East Frontier Agency, speaking more different languages than in any other Indian state. Some still practise animist beliefs whilst others follow the major religions.
C’mon, they need your answer… I opted for the epic road trip to Tawang in the Himalayan foothills, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.
Never pass up a discount bookstore, because you just never know what you might find. Not long ago I picked up a copy of Off the Map, an intriguing little paperback by British geographer Alastair Bonnett, who invites us on a tour of the world’s most ambiguous and ephemeral places.
Such places can be floating or newly-emerged islands, or even man-made; they can be unrecognised, self-declared territories and wannabe sovereign nations; or loosely-defined border zones. They can be dangerous or nightmarish places whose existence is officially suppressed – think Wittenoon, Western Australia, or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – or they might equally be the magical retreats you shared with your childhood companions, places that adults never knew.
Bonnett’s mention of childhood retreats transported me straight back to the bush-clad hills behind our suburban home in 1950s Hobart, Tasmania. Sunnyside Road ended in a cul-de-sac surrounded by native bushland, which to us kids (no ‘virtual’ amusements, remember!) represented a maze of paths and byways, of semi-secret
hiding places. It’s all vanished now.
Ephemeral places also include those niches seized by the dispossessed, be they refugees, asylum-seekers or simply the homeless.
There’s nothing nostalgic about many other places Off the Map. Bonnett also remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan.
Taking advantage of age-old ethnic rivalries, Putin’s Russia has carved out at least four more pseudo-republics in eastern Europe, two (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from Georgian territory. These separatist enclaves are recognised by no other major nation and co-exist uneasily with their neighbours. After hearing a hair-raising story about an injured and penniless Dutchman who had been stranded in Abkhazia, I abandoned the idea of attempting to cross from Georgia. South Ossetia is, apparently, little more than a single valley.
Greece hosts the ancient monastic enclave of Mt Athos, where women have been banned for centuries. But productivity, not piety, drives an oestrogen-free island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. Many oil and gas industry workers shuttle back and forth from Das Island, 160 km offshore from Abu Dhabi. This desolate landfall has become a vital production hub, covered with pipelines and pumping stations.
In the 1980s, at least, life on Das was not as bleak as this suggests. The all-male community, 3000-strong, enjoyed a choice of catering ranging from mess halls to silver service restaurants, and superlative sporting and library facilities.
Then there are the border zones… who doesn’t get a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from crossing a foreign frontier? So often, two cultures come face to face here, perhaps clashing, perhaps blending, perhaps mingling like oil and water, as the communities either side of the line draw life and purpose from each other.
In many parts of Asia and the Middle East, border fences and signposts are a recent innovation. Tribal nomads often enjoy freedom of movement denied to the traveller on wheels, whilst townspeople flow back and forth on market days. In Arabia’s barren wilderness, only the oases were traditionally attached to one realm or another. The independent Sultanate of Oman is intertwined with the sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, and many landlocked enclaves were crossed without formality until recent years.
Some borders still have to be observed from a safe distance. The border between North and South Korea remains a ceasefire line; four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, the Demilitarized Zone is sealed against human intrusion and, ironically, has become a flourishing habitat for wildlife.
From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.
It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.
Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.
Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.
It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings. Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.
The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.
An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.
Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.
The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.
Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.